Saturday, August 29, 2009

Aug 29, 2009

By Cheong Suk-Wai

IN EARLY May 1969, Australian anthropologist Clive Kessler rode his motorcycle through Kelantan hamlets for 30km to the nearest telephone box. He then called his parents in Sydney and told them: 'You're going to hear about trouble in a few parts of Malaysia in the next few days, but not where I am.'

Sure enough, Malaysia's bloodiest civil strife erupted. Dr Kessler, who was then there to observe Islamist politics, had predicted it in an article he wrote to the press and in an interview he gave the Times of London in April 1969.

Now 67, the emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney has been a Malaysia watcher for more than 40 years and published prodigiously on it, including two books.

He had taught at the London School of Economics (LSE) and then Columbia University in New York city from the late 1960s till 1980. In that time, he worked closely with such lions in his field as LSE's Maurice Freedman and Raymond Firth as well as Princeton's Clifford Geertz.

He got in touch with me initially about my published review of his compatriot Anthony Milner's book, The Malays. In the review, I had wrongly attributed to Dr Kessler the view that if the Malay cannot make something of himself, he will try to bend others to his will. Dr Kessler was gracious about my unwitting error and we got to talking about Malaysia in Subang Jaya, Selangor, at the tail end of his two-month sojourn there recently.

You call yourself a cautious progressive. How far do you think Malaysia has come since 1969?

Malaysia has achieved a huge amount. That's undeniable. Yet, it could have done much more and much better. It's moved to a safe mediocrity.

How much are the 1969 race riots responsible for that?

I've never liked calling what happened in 1969 'race riots'. Of course there was inter-ethnic mayhem but it was a symptom of something larger - a regime crisis.

The problem was more than Malay poverty, disadvantage and resentment. It was the credibility of the political order that had produced, or failed to remedy, that sense of Malay marginalisation.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was to remedy that, and had to be justified in terms of the 'special position' of the Malays. But with the return of electoral politics in 1970, powerful populist demands grew for the NEP's continuation, which was then used to justify the expansion of the notion of Malay rights and further entrenching of strong government.

Why are Malaysians marching in the streets these days?

They want a different kind of politics. They want to say this post-1969 political dispensation is exhausted, that it's being increasingly held together by intimidation and manipulation and even force, and that the Internal Security Act is central to that.

What's gone wrong, really?

The problem these days is that the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the whole state fashioned in its image can be seen as a glove made to fit one hand - Umno's - and not even its fingers work together. It lacks clear, convincing authority at the moment.

Why is that?

There is no simple answer. In many ways, the transformation of Malaysian and, in particular, Malay society, was the work of Umno itself. But it could not acknowledge and embrace the changes that it had itself unleashed with its policies. It was unable to loosen up its own political structures and approach.

What was so interesting and moving, yet also frightening, about March last year was the eruption of the various social changes unleashed by Umno for which the political system had itself become a strait-jacket. So these changes simply burst through and broke it.

How much needs to be fixed?

I am no prophet. I do not underestimate the difficulty and complexity of its problems. Its leaders are not delusional when they say things could go badly and if they do, society could turn upon itself.

At any time, Malaysia is subject to two inverse dynamics. First, continuing economic growth that is dependent on maintaining civil peace. Second, civil peace that is dependent on the continuation, or continued expectation of, uninterrupted economic development. If either cycle goes wrong, trouble is conceivable.

Malaysians are largely peace-loving, so how conceivable is that?

Malaysia's got the basis for progress and prosperity. But the basic problems of social cohesion, social and political accommodation and political trust, persist.

Why is that?

It goes back to the fundamental contradictions in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's Vision 2020, which was not an architect's blueprint from which to build but an amalgam of mutually incompatible elements.

It offered the image of an economically and technologically modern society, but failed to recognise that you cannot simply create a modern economy with modern technology and keep everything else pretty much unchanged.

So what has to change?

You need a modern pluralistic society of independent autonomous and active citizens - and a government that can accept rather than feel threatened by their vitality.

Why has Umno been slow to change?

It has wanted to keep the political world of deference, obedience, favour-seeking and gratitude.

Are you hopeful for Malaysia's future?

I'm not as hopeful as I used to be. Where I come from, it's pessimism and anxiety, not football and cricket, that are the national sports. Malaysia is now on a complicated course, and it is at a particularly bumpy stretch of the road.

Serious roadworks are needed along the way. I am not sure that the vehicle that the people are travelling in is well-maintained and still suitable to get them through all that they face.

No comments: